New Testament Teaching on Marriage and Divorce
An Essay presented as part of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Divinity with Honours in New Testament within the University of Queensland
1. Introduction | 2. Marriage as a Divine Ordinance | 3. One Flesh | 4. Divorce | 5. The Exceptive Clauses | 6. Conclusion | Bibliography | [PDF (252k)] of whole essay
5. The Exceptive Clauses
There are two sayings in Matthew which have been taken to modify or contradict the general teaching of the New Testament on the subject of divorce by introducing an exception to the absolute rejection of divorce. "Every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery" (Mt 5.32). "Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery" (Mt 19.9).
Some scholars consider that the exceptive clauses are interpolations which directly contradict the teaching of Jesus as stated in the Gospels and in the Pauline Epistles. Thus, T.H. Robinson considers that the words have been inserted by the evangelist as an interpretation of the words of Jesus. However, he doubts whether Jesus really limited the application of his law since "no legal formula or judicial act could affect what was fundamentally a spiritual relation… If adultery is the desecration of the deepest and holiest element in the physical life of man, no mere scrap of paper can make the slightest difference to it".30 This acknowledges the seriousness of the adultery involved in a second marriage after divorce (which, because it does nothing to the essential marriage union, is a "mere scrap of paper"), but does not consider the effects of adultery itself on what is "fundamentally a spiritual relation".
B.H. Branscomb regards Mark's account as the correct one, since the evidence of Luke's account and of Paul's reference does not allow exceptions, and the rest of the answer in both Matthew and Mark appeals to the teaching of Genesis over against the law of divorce in Dt. 24. Further, among a people with whom divorce was easy, he was emphasising permanence, and his teaching here and elsewhere shows him not interested in classifying and listing exceptional cases.31 Again, the unanswered question is whether adultery does anything to the permanence of marriage.
Robertson and Plummer state categorically that "St Paul, like our Lord, forbids divorce absolutely; porneia in the wife is not mentioned here as creating an exception; and it is possible that this exception was unknown to the Apostle because it had not been made by Christ".32
Some scholars view the words as representing the later legislation of the Church, legitimate or not, under the authority to "bind" and "loose" (Mt. 16.19; 18.18). Thus, A.H. McNeile states, "The Christian Church, with its authority to bind and loose... early made the exception to meet a pressing ethical need; and since the need has not ceased, the exception is valid today".33 J.C. Fenton concludes similarly that "the permission to allow divorce in certain circumstances seems to be one example of the use of this authority by the early Church". Here, however, "the distinction between the original command of the Lord and the Church's legislation has been obscured".34
F.V. Filson thinks that what Jesus said about divorce is not so clear as the fact that he did speak strongly against it. He concludes that the exceptions must be Church decisions – "Apparently the Church had to decide what to do when married couples failed to fulfil the purpose of the Creator. 'Matthew', or his source for this teaching, evidently held that the Church must hold divorce to a minimum, but that the spirit of Jesus' teaching could best be realised by permitting divorce where the wife was guilty of unchastity".35
S.E. Johnson affirms that Jesus made no exceptions, but that the Church had to legislate for hard cases as Matthew believed it had the power to do. Johnson seems unsure of the result – "Whether the church was justified in taking this stand is a question of theology, not of scientific exegesis".36
C.E.B. Cranfield thinks that, while the dissolving of the marriage union inevitably stands under divine judgment, "it may nevertheless be proper for the state and also the Church to make provision for situations in which because of human sinfulness divorce may be the lesser evil".37 G.B. Caird makes a similar point and concludes that "it is only in the kingdom, where there is a cure for hardness of heart, that the ideal becomes practicable".38
There are other scholars who consider that the exceptive clauses are merely the addition of what is implicit in our Lord's teaching elsewhere. There, J.M. Creed considers that though an interpretative gloss it is nonetheless probable that it "preserves the actual purport of the teaching of Jesus".39
Some scholars under this category hold that adultery is the one sin which destroys the marriage bond. A.W. Argyle states that it was taken for granted by all including Jesus "that unchastity was the only possible ground for divorce because it destroyed the unity between man and wife".40 E.P. Gould considers that the exception is implied "because adultery is the real dissolution of the marriage tie, as distinguished from the formal divorce. Precisely as divorce does not break the marriage tie, adultery does break it".41 Likewise D.E. Nineham, "It may be held that in the case of adultery, the union has ipso facto been dissolved".42
Other scholars under this category consider that the clause is an interpolation in 19.9 but in 5.32 simply states that a man cannot make his wife an adulteress by divorce if she is one already. Thus, G.E.P. Cox has, "If the wife is already an adulteress, her husband by divorcing her does not make her one", but he considers the clause in this sense superfluous.43 W.C. Allen views the matter similarly: "If a man divorced his wife for porneia, he would not then cause her to commit adultery, because she would already be guilty of this crime", but he thinks that the exception, though obvious, confuses the issues.44
It is thus clear that there is a wide range of views on this subject. At this point there are a number of issues requiring clarification. In particular, there is the exact significance of porneiw and its effect on the marriage bond. This has been noted in connection with those scholars who see the clauses merely as interpolations contrary to the spirit of the teaching of Christ.
The normal word for "adultery" is moiceia, not porneia which is a more general term for illicit sexual intercourse. The two terms are evidently to be seen in distinction in Mt. 15.19 (= Mk 7.21) and in Gal. 5.19 (in D and a number of later MSS). However, because porneia is broad in application, it may nevertheless include the specific case of moiceia. Indeed, the use of porneia for the sin of a married woman is evident in the use of the LXX in Gn. 38.24; Hos. 2.2 (where the two are used in poetic parallelism); and elsewhere. It is significant here, however, that while porneia is used in the exceptive clauses, it is followed by a verb more strictly implying adultery (moiceuw/moicaw). Thus, it has been suggested by some that the word must refer to unchastity before marriage which is discovered after marriage. In such a case the essential marriage union has not taken place and the marriage is therefore nullified.
C.E.P. Cox has further sought to understand the word in terms of marriage within the prohibited degrees, such a marriage being from the outset null and void, the two instances constituting grounds for a decree of nullity.45 P. Bonnard concurs with the second suggestion and thinks that in the apostolic decree of Acts 15.28,29 porneia is used in this sense of a marriage within the forbidden degree.46 It is clear that such a marriage would involve porneia rather than moiceia, since no other marriage bond is involved. However, if intercourse has taken place, the relation may be both illegal and sinful, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the "one flesh" relationship is hereby established, as in 1 Cor. 6.16. This suggestion is thus full of its own peculiar problems. The suggestion that porneia refers here to premarital unchastity is also difficult to sustain. In such a case it may be assumed that the "one flesh" relationship has been entered into with another man with no intentions of exclusiveness and permanence. Does such a relationship constitute an indissoluble relationship, and is it hence in the sight of God the equivalent of a former marriage which of necessity renders the later marriage invalid and which must make any intercourse in the later marriage adultery? Such a conclusion seems to imply that people united in sin are "joined together by God". It also seems to take no account of the gospel, for it is not suggested that divorce is commanded, as was the case in certain situations under later Judaism.
It may be that 1 Cor. 7.11 implies the case of divorce among Christians on the grounds of adultery, yet if so the woman is not to remarry but rather to seek reconciliation. Premarital unchastity is a serious sin which demands repentance and forgiveness, though apart from these it could well prove a hindrance to a true and lasting marriage. It seems, then, best to take this verse to refer to adultery after marriage.47
It is already clear that adultery in itself need not lead to divorce. It may be followed (indeed, in a Christian context, ought to be) by repentance and reconciliation. However, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that adultery is the one sin which by its nature violates the "one flesh" relationship. Indeed, unless there is reconciliation, it may virtually destroy it, for not only is there the break-down of the spiritual and personal bond (as in most cases where people sue for a divorce) but the violation of the marriage contract by entry into the exclusive physical relationship with another party. Thus, it may be taken that the absolute command of Mt 19.6 is in such a case not ignored by a divorce which does nothing to the relationship already flagrantly violated by the adultery which precedes divorce. It is because of the radical separation involved in adultery that, within the Christian context, repentance and reconciliation are imperative. One may almost say that this involves the re-establishment of the marriage contract on its former exclusive permanent basis.
The question remains whether adultery, like death, so severs the marriage bond as to make the way open, after repudiation of the legal bond, for remarriage. The form of the statement in 19.9 seems to imply this, and even the omission of kai gamhsh allhn by B does not escape from the strong suggestion that the possibility of remarriage is implied. How else, one may ask, could such a person be said to "commit adultery"? Indeed, under strict Old Testament law, the death penalty was to be meted out to the guilty party, leaving the innocent party in fact free to remarry.
It has been suggested that the excepting clause here is little more than the agreement with Shammai as against Hillel.48 However, it is clear that Jesus was not entering into a discussion on Jewish casuistry, but setting out the principles of the creative will of God. Adultery is regarded as a serious sin, whether before or after formal divorce, though the records in Mark and Luke do not indicate the effects of this sin against the marriage bond. However, even there it is adultery rather than divorce in itself which is the radical denial of this ordinance of God. It does not seem inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus that in adultery, as not in divorce, there is such sundering of the divine bond as leaves the innocent party free to remarry. For the guilty party, of course, it is true that remarriage is merely the addition of sin to sin. To see this beyond the Jewish context, it is necessary to extend this principle to include such cases where the adultery has been committed by the man.

End Notes:
30 op. cit., on Mt. 5.31-32.
31 The Gospel of Mark (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1937), on 10.2-12.
32 op. cit., on 1 Cor. 7.11.
33 op. cit., on Mt. 5.32.
34 op. cit., on Mt. 5.32.
35 op. cit., on Mt. 5.32.
36 The Gospel According to St. Matthew in The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VII (Abingdon, New York, 1951), on 5.32.
37 op. cit., on Mk 10.9.
38 Saint Luke (Penguin, Middlesex, 1963), on 16.18.
39 The Gospel According to St. Luke (Macmillan, London, 1930), on 16.18.
40 The Gospel According to Matthew (C.U.P., Cambridge, 1963), on 5.32.
41 op. cit., on Mk 10.12.
42 op. cit., on Mk 10.9.
43 The Gospel according to St. Matthew (S.C.M., London, 1952), on 5.31-32.
44 A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 3ed 1912), on 5.32.
45 op. cit., on Mt. 19.3-9.